Knowing what fruits and vegetables are in season can be confusing—especially when your local grocery store is stocked and loaded with every kind of produce under the sun at all times. If you don’t get the hoopla surrounding farmers’ markets, it may help to know that in-season produce isn’t just more flavorful than what's shipped across the country, it’s more nutritious, too.
Fruits and vegetables harvested at just the right time in their peak season are more nutritionally dense because they’ve had time to mature and develop abundant nutrients. Sure, that grapefruit (a winter fruit) you eat every morning year-round tastes fine—since it was picked prematurely to ripen over the days- or week-long journey to your supermarket—but it isn’t giving your body its full potential in vitamins and nutrients. Take spinach, for example. Eating it in season provides up to three times more vitamin C than eating it out of season, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
To determine the most nutritionally dense summer fruits and vegetables, we went to Adam Kelinson, a private chef and nutritional consultant for athletes, executives, and celebrities (the likes of Prince and Hillary Swank), and author of The Athletes Plate: Real Food for High Performance. Take this list with you the next time you head to the grocery store or farmers’ market, and enjoy the freshest, healthiest produce the summer has to offer.
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are packed with Vitamin C, antioxidants and anthocyanins—plus, they’re an excellent source of fiber. “They’re best picked and eaten the same day,” Kelinson says. “Look for ones that are fragrant, firm, plump, and dry.” Telltale signs you picked too early or chose an un-ripened bunch at the market: They’ll be very hard and sour. In this case, it pays off to be picky.
Garlic comes in a ton of varieties—all with different shapes and sizes—though each is equally as nutritious. A great source of phytonutrients and minerals, garlic is one of the richest sources of potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, and zinc, in addition to Vitamins B and C. “You want bulbs that are very firm and have a subtle, pungent aroma,” Kelinson says. “Choose ones with the skin intact, completely covering the cloves, and with color ranging from bleach white to tinted hues of purple.” If you’ve been avoiding this cancer-fighting super food, it’s time to buy some breath mints, and go all in.
If you’re looking for a boost of Folic Acid, or Vitamins K and D, peas are a great choice. Keep in mind that peas can be starchy and dry if they’re not picked and eaten fresh (within a few days of picking.) “Look for pods that are full, but not huge, and have a bright green, robust color to them,” Kelinson advises. “The skin should look fresh and plump, not wrinkled, so avoid the ones that have whitish patches or shriveled ends.”
Succulent and sweet, no other fruit is as satisfying as peaches in the summer. It also helps that they’re a great source of antioxidants and minerals such as potassium, fluoride and iron. “Ripeness depends a little on variety, but in general, the skin should be tight and when gently squeezed, should give slightly,” Kelinson says. “Sometimes a strong peachy, sweet smell means they’re overripe, so rely more on feel than anything else,” he adds. You don’t want peaches that are mushy; you want firm ones with bright colors of orange and yellow.
Whether you’re devoted to heirlooms or keen on hybrids, there’s a tomato variety for everyone. Though they’re a good source of Vitamin C, they’re most widely hailed for the antioxidant Lycopene. When you’re picking tomatoes, give them slight pressure; you want ones that are firm, but give a little (just like the peaches.) “The skin should be intact, not cracked, and avoid ones that have tops that are yellowish, hard, and split,” Kelinson says. “The entire fruit should be full of color, which can range from red to green to black, and always avoid ones with brown, patchy spots on the bottom,” he adds.
Watermelon, cantaloupe, muskmelon, and honeydew each boast unique health benefits relative to their color. For instance, produce that’s red (like tomatoes and watermelon) usually contains Lycopene, and they’re a good source of various vitamins (A, C, B-6) and minerals (potassium and manganese.) “When picking watermelons, try to find ones that have a kind of hollow sound when you tap on them, and for the skin to be nice and green,” Kelinson says. “For cantaloupes and other melons, they should have a nice musk or sweet aroma, and when you put some pressure on the vine end, they should give a little,” he adds. “Cantaloupes should be beige in color and honeydew a light lime hue; if they’re whitish or deep green, they haven’t seen enough sun to ripen.”
Often overlooked, radishes are a super nutritious root vegetable with a good amount of Vitamin C and other flavonoid antioxidants. Finding ones at peak ripeness can be tricky, though. “Choose ones with green, healthy-looking tops still intact,” Kelinson says. “They should be firm to hard, but not soft—and don’t worry if some have irregularities or spots, they have been underground.”
A great grilling side, corn is rich in potassium, magnesium, iron and Vitamin B-6. “It’s best eaten the day it was picked, or the sugars begin to rapidly turn into starches,” Kelinson says. “The leaves should have a bright color to them (not wrinkled), the ears should be firm when you squeeze, and the tassels at the top can be yellowish to brown, but not overly dark or mushy.” To really determine ripeness, bite into one, Kelinson suggests. The kernels should pop with sweetness and easily come off the ear.
You’re familiar with broccoli, but do you know its cruciferous cousins rabe and rapini? All are nutrient-dense, boasting Vitamins A and C, along with other trace minerals. “Broccoli heads should be tight and compact with a dark green color starting at the top (sometimes with a bit of purple hue) that fades slightly lighter as you travel down the stem,” Kelinson says. “For rapini, the leaves should be deep green—though not overly big—with tight edible flowers that are sometimes open and yellow.”
Rich in potassium, high in Vitamin K, and packed with water, cucumbers are the perfect summer vegetable to keep you full, cool, and hydrated. Varieties differ and the skin can be smooth to slightly bumpy, but look for ones that are firm and offer no give under pressure with a tight skin that is not wrinkled. “Some are a uniform deep green, but others are a little lighter with some white to beige strokes, sometimes even yellow,” Kelinson says. “You’re not going to get much ripeness info from smell, but they should have a fresh ‘green’ aroma to them,” he adds.